The life of an endurance athlete can be excruciatingly difficult but not for the reasons most people would think. It isn’t because of the long hours spent covering insane distances. It isn’t because many of us have to wake before dawn to put in those miles. It isn’t even the pain from the overuse injuries we endure. No, these are things we can handle. They are par for the course, worn as badges of honor by endurance athletes.
The difficult part, the part that guts every endurance athlete without exception, is the forced rest – the days, weeks and sometimes even months following an injury when we are told we cannot run, bike or even swim. These are the days when we wish we had never found the sport. Because knowing how great it feels to be out there on those roads before most people are even out of bed, knowing how incredible it feels to cross that finish line after running fifty miles, knowing how great it feels to push ourselves beyond the limit, and missing those moments is absolutely gut wrenching.
And knowing that for the most part it was something we could have prevented had we just listened to our bodies, makes it all the more difficult. As endurance athletes, we often know when an injury is coming before it is even a niggle. We feel a twinge in the knee or the foot and we can tell you which tendon that is. But we justify. “It’s just that my right hip is a little sore so I am compensating. If I concentrate, I can strike just right from now on and that left ankle won’t be a problem.” Or, “No, it’s not really an injury. I can run through this.”
The problem is that we can run through it. We have built a pain threshold that most people can’t understand and often we can run through the pain, sometimes to a point where it seems to disappear completely. To be fair, half of the time, we are making the right decision. Half of the time, we can work on our form and keep an injury from fully developing, or we can keep running, warm the muscle up and never feel the pain again. But when we are facing an actual injury, it is hard to give ourselves a break. We kick ourselves for not listening to our bodies at the first sign. We kick ourselves for not calling the doctor and getting it checked out.
When we are injured, everything we know about ourselves as endurance athletes is questioned. Maybe we are not as strong as we thought we were. Maybe we will not be able to get back into condition like we have in the past. And the worse, maybe we were just being a baby. Maybe the pain isn’t quite as bad as we thought.
This is the one that does us in. This is the one that has us putting the supportive boot aside and just testing ourselves a little to see if we can run. And this is the decision that takes us from three weeks without running to six weeks without running. We are endurance athletes. We push ourselves. It is not just what we do, but who we are.
As I sit here writing this, my right foot, securely ensconced in a protective boot, is propped carefully on the stool under my desk. A bottle of anti-inflammatory and a large glass of water sits beside my computer. Today, I am lucky. Today, the pain in my foot is horrendous. I tell you, as only an endurance athlete can, that the pain is a good thing because today is a speed workout day. Today is an important run in my marathon schedule and diagnosis or not, without the pain, I know the temptation to test the foot would be too strong. I know that the minute the pain stops I will start mourning the marathon that I am sure to miss while this foot heals. And I know that instead of remembering that rest and recovery is my job right now, I will remember the joy of being on the roads, the joy of losing myself in the sound of my feet slapping the pavement and the joy of completing another marathon.
Being an endurance athlete is difficult but it is what I have chosen to do. So today I remind myself, as I sit here twitching with the desire to be out there doing what I do, that it is through our struggles that we discover our strengths. And so, I struggle with this enforced rest. I am an endurance athlete and I will endure.